Into the Language Lab
Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr's Poetry and Pedagogy
March 1, 2007
Mar 1, 2007
12 Min read time
Since most college students resist all poetry as arcane, elitist, or even inscrutable, why not give them material that’s supposed to be hard, that requires active reading to make provisional sense of it? That’s the argument of Poetry and Pedagogy, a collection of essays by poets, teachers, and scholars. The approach is, in fact, a shot in the arm for sluggish classrooms, and the adrenaline it prescribes is contemporary innovative poetry. The experimental poetries of the past 30 years, the editors argue, expose students to the “linguistic laboratory” of their own multi- and cross-cultural moment. One contributor, Lynn Keller, extends that metaphor with her compelling image of the “centrifugal classroom”: whereas traditional models tend to pull the reader inward into “confessional spaces,” the centrifugal classroom draws students outward “toward the world outside the poem and how language works there.” Inviting and dynamic, Keller’s model makes it easy to catch the fever of “democratization and openness” that the teaching methods described here inspire.
Yet easy the poems are not. The texts that Keller and most of the other contributors have in mind are associated with Language writing, including works by Susan Howe, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and Charles Bernstein, with Hejinian and Bernstein also contributing essays themselves. These poems are famously (or notoriously) difficult for their disjunctiveness and indeterminacy, their theoretical underpinnings, and their departures from formal, narrational, and generic conventions. The suggestion that such texts are ideal for sparking student interest in poetry appears counterintuitive at first, but the book makes a persuasive case. Retallack and Spahr observe that because these poems require intense concentration and collaboration, they engage students in “a performative dimension”—a “collaborative making of meaning” that is axiomatic to contemporary innovative poetry in the first place. What emerges in these classrooms is not undergraduate solipsism (“The poem is open to interpretation, so it means anything I say it does”) but ways to “make meaning in motion”—comparative, vigorous reading practices.
The result, as these reports from the front lines of seminars attest, is the biggest boon to close reading in 50 years. Charles Bernstein’s “Poem Profiler” is a fabulous 134-item list of things to pay attention to in poems, going far beyond irony and metonymy to include “coefficient of weirdness (wackiness quotient),” “sampling (use of found or quoted material),” and “variant versions, including performances,” as well as an exhaustive list of relative possibilities such as parataxis vs. hypotaxis, kinetic vs. static, and neat vs. messy. He has his students looking for ambivalence, density, artifice, closure, exaggeration, right justification, radicalism, pastoralism, mysticism, melodiousness, sobriety, surrealism, and relevant ethnic, gender, national, and sexual orientations. Bernstein and many of these teachers are concerned with giving their students tools for descriptive analysis: awareness of connotation, recognition of different modes of representation, a grammar for reading forms and contexts. They promote the habits of concentration and close attention to language that poetry requires and rewards, but without the apoliticism associated with New Critical formalism, bringing Understanding Poetry—Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s seminal 1938 textbook—up to date.
This updating is long overdue. Despite sporadic resurgences, poetry has for several decades occupied a marginalized position in English departments, where fiction and popular culture have become the preferred objects of analysis. The New Criticism, with its heuristic approach to analyzing a poem’s tropes and formal construction, left a generation of students with a distaste for the seemingly clinical task of “explication”—the dreaded homework assignment. Meanwhile, New Critical aestheticism—its emphasis on the poem as a self-referential objet d’art, isolated from politics and the conditions of its making—was set up over and over again as a straw man for the arguments that comprised the revolutions in critical thinking of the 1970s through 1990s. As poststructuralists, New Historicists, and many others challenged the New Critical paradigm, they also demoted poetry as the privileged object of literary study. The contributors to this volume reinstate poetry to the discussion where it belongs—not a site of lyric seclusion, but right in the midst of a complex evolution of ideas about literature and literary language, the place of literary forms in the political sphere, and the cultural weight of creative work.
Most of these writers criticize the values implicit in New Critical analysis, especially its reliance on voice and lyric subjectivity. Brooks and Warren’s first principle states that a poem is “an individual’s attempt to deal with a specific problem, poetic and personal.” Language writing explicitly challenges the notion that an expressive “I” speaker of a poem gives the reader a transparent window on reality, and experimental writing more broadly shuns the hubris it takes to think, à la Robert Lowell, that anyone cares about a solitary speaker watching a skunk poke through his garbage. Nonetheless, as these writers propose new pedagogical paradigms suited to new poetries, they wisely resist the now-familiar oppositional stance to the New Criticism, which Harryette Mullen observes would be “flogging the ghost of a dead horse.” If any teacher of poetry today, with whatever aesthetic bent, encountered a student who had actually read Understanding Poetry, he or she would rejoice. This new book of guidelines for teaching poetry returns us to close reading through a principle that we tend to forget that Brooks and Warren also stated: “Poems come out of a historical moment, and since they are written in language, the form is tied to a whole cultural context.” Moreover, these writers would also likely agree with Brooks and Warren’s belief that human experience as embodied in poetry “is concrete, in that it involves a process, and in that it embodies the human effort to arrive—through conflict—at meaning.” Understanding poetry, then and now, requires a process-oriented, tension-fraught engagement with its concreteness, specificity, and irreducible writtenness—though these more recent writers insist that we arrive at meanings, emphatically plural.
Full of examples and exercises that point students in the direction of these specific meanings, the book is a valuable practical resource. G. Matthew Jenkins describes his step-wise process for teaching Susan Howe’s The Non-Conformist’s Memorial at a two-year vocational college, overcoming repeated protests of “It doesn’t make sense!” with a “web” model of reading that encourages students to see how “some poems try to multiply, rather than control, possible meanings.” Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels offer several exercises for “deforming” poems to open interpretive possibilities, such as isolating all of the verbs in a poem to reveal “the energy or dormancy of the poem’s action.” Another “deformance” technique—“reading backward”—derives from one of Emily Dickinson’s letters: “Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have—a Something overtakes the Mind—.” The question that is posed to students throughout the examples given in this book shifts from “what does the poem mean?” to “how do we release or expose the poem’s possibilities of meaning?”
Several teachers encourage students to respond to experimental writing in ways other than traditional academic essays. Mullen and Mark McMorris each have the students perform M. Nourbese Philip’s “She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks,” dividing the class into male and female “choruses” and having them write treatments for staging it. Jim Keller assigns “hypertext reading” exercises that employ free writing to enact a process of “pluri-poiesis.” Derek Owens has students create multimedia environments, and has received projects, in lieu of term papers, ranging from Web-site presentations to origami mobiles to “an inflatable sex doll with poems inserted into orifices.”
Amidst the classroom hijinks, the collection gathers important discussions, and several thorough theorizations, of developments in contemporary poetry and the position of avant-garde poetic practices at large. Charles Altieri’s trenchant analysis of lyric expressivity locates Language writing’s insistence on the linguistic basis of affective experience in the context of Romantic and Modernist strategies. Alan Golding revisits the problem of the avant-garde’s “co-option” by the academy, reflecting on the pedagogical implications of the institutionalization of experimental poetics. The matter of innovative poetry’s oppositional stances persists—opposition to “centrist” conventions such as normative syntax, narrative, “aboutness,” and “I-lyricist” modes of expression. Yet the editors acknowledge from the outset that “while there has been a tendency to see Lyric and Language as two groups warring over dominance, the actual picture is much more complex, full of numerous divergent poetries.” Their emphasis on the multiple possibilities for locating poetic subjectivity, of which the singular expressive “I” is only one, is in keeping with the volume’s pluralistic and democratizing aims: “Any ‘I’ from whom one has something to learn must be in conversation with an unsettling mélange of ‘others.’”
This emphasis on difference and otherness leads to some utopian fantasies. Maria Damon, in the space of a single page, calls for “ahierarchic heterogeneity,” “utopian heterocracy,” and “alchemical heterotopias.” The editors themselves, by their own admission, approach the teaching of poetry with “unabashedly utopian ideals.” The essays in this collection are persuasive when they show how students who are schooled in examining experimental poetry are “more prepared to examine how other texts, from other poems and works of literature to TV advertisements and political speeches, make and communicate meaning.” However, they are considerably less persuasive when they claim that students enter “the zone where vernacular meets academy, where disciplines are undone, where street and workshop are one.” Taking the leap to the claim that this collective classroom work constitutes “the definition of a democracy” overlooks institutional facts. The workshop is not the street: unless this poetry were taught in public K–12 classrooms, which is proposed but remains unlikely, most of the suggestions offered here require the reader to be part of a tuition-paying community. It is one thing to challenge the scene of solitary reading and promote the democratizing power of readerly collaboration and collective interpretation, but quite another to access this power without being enrolled in a degree program. There are other reading communities, to be sure—online, in coffeehouses, in book clubs. For most readers, however, the opportunity to do these kinds of exercises and assignments, to confer with others in depth and detail about social meaning-making in polysemous texts—as opposed to reading on lunch break, or in an exhausted half hour before bed—constitutes a luxury indeed.
Anticipating this charge, Lynn Keller cites Barrett Watten’s assertion in his introduction to Ron Silliman’s Tjanting that “a bus ride is better than most art” and his further suggestion that “it is possible, in fact, to read this book on a bus.” This scene of reading in motion, reading while traveling within and through the “din of culture,” is presented as a touchstone for the centrifugal classroom. Even though a classroom is necessarily an interior of its own, a centrifugal classroom can be attuned to how students and poets got there—attuned to public arenas, multiple discursive communities, social and cultural contexts. A centrifugal classroom must continue to be an interrogative space, continually asking about, among many other things, where readers are situated. Mullen’s list of new critical questions for poetry includes these about readers:
Do readers seek intellectual stimulation, vicarious experience, an opportunity for empathy, escape from reality, gossip? Do readers seek to join or maintain their membership in a group defined by its intellectual and creative interests, its cultivation of high levels of culture, its critical and theoretical sophistication? . . . Is the reader imagined as a consumer of a well-made aesthetic artifact, a collaborator in a decoding/signifying process, a potential political activist?
The writers of these essays clearly prefer some of these positions to others—“yes” to the reader as collaborator and activist, “no” to the well-wrought urn. To be true to this book’s own spirit, however, these answers should not be taken for granted. Does the ubiquitous principle of readers as co-producers of meaning empower seminar participants, or marginalized poetic communities, in any concrete sense? How exactly do experimental poetries spin out of their high cultural and theoretical orbits to “formally instantiate” an ethics or call for political action?
These questions are not new, but this volume raises afresh the need to answer them. In a recent article in PMLA, Marianne DeKoven reflects on the fervor with which feminist poetic experimentalism was pursued in the early 1980s in such journals as Kathleen Fraser’s HOWever. DeKoven describes her own earlier hope that experimental writing might challenge capitalist patriarchy and lead to “the abolition of all forms of hierarchy, of dominance-subordination”: “the opposition implicit in experimental writing to the cultural hegemony of sense, order, and coherence has ramifications on the largest scale.” Although she is somewhat critical of her earlier optimism, and less convinced now that experimental writing is “poised to unleash utopia,” DeKoven goes on to point out the persistence of “experimentation” in various media. Yet she, like many the writers who contribute to Poetry and Pegagogy, leaves unquestioned some basic assumptions about what “experiment” is and how it attempts to enact its revolutionary work, especially the notion that fragmentation and derangement of syntax can undermine the evils of the status quo. From the vantage point of our current historical-political moment, “sense, order, and coherence” don’t seem like such terrible things. Whatever merits there might be in a participatory ethics of reading—including the reader in the making of meaning and thus leveling hierarchies—must be weighed against the dangers of enshrining yet another chaos that cannot redeem itself.
A less lofty goal of this book than the embodiment of a readerly democracy—and perhaps a more important one—is its call to expand curricula to include poetry written since 1950, and, in so doing, to make Language writing and other experimental works available to a wider audience. There are times when the suggestions here bear the marks of an “in crowd” problem—the promotion of one poetic canon over another. Most of these writers, predictably, do not have anything nice to say about Elizabeth Bishop or Sylvia Plath. Nonetheless, the diversity and breadth of examples offered, an eclectic mix of poems from different regions and right up to the present day, remedies a chronic omission in college courses. A tone of passionate optimism, moreover, imbues these teaching methods and suggests their wide, flexible applicability. When Damon cites Jack Spicer’s oft-quoted lines “No / one listens to poetry,” she does so to correct a misreading. The line break means that these lines need not be read as an admission of defeat, but as a directive: “No, one listens to poetry.” If a single message can be gleaned from a book that insists that poetry’s messages are always multiple, it is this: take notice, read closely, read your way right out the classroom door.
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March 01, 2007
12 Min read time